(RNS) — World Vision U.S. President Edgar Sandoval Sr., like many Americans, has been working from home in recent weeks. But he continues his mission to help vulnerable children and families across the globe during the coronavirus epidemic.
World Vision staff are working with church volunteers — responding simultaneously for the first time in this country and globally — to provide needed food and supplies and help faith leaders train local communities on ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The evangelical Christian humanitarian organization estimated it has helped about 4.3 million people worldwide with coronavirus preparations. It plans to reach 5 times that number in the next six months.
In the U.S., staff and volunteers have helped more than 2,700 children and adults with emergency aid since March 20. They’ve also provided much-in-demand health supplies — tens of thousands of masks, gloves and gowns — to U.S. health care workers.
Sandoval, who describes himself as a “Bible-based Christian” who attends nondenominational churches, spoke with Religion News Service on Wednesday (April 1) about the challenges ahead.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have been president of World Vision since 2018. How would you compare the coronavirus to any other global crisis you have faced since you started?
This is probably the most uncertain and concerning situation that World Vision has faced in our 70-year history. But just like other challenging emergencies of the past, in these uncertain times, World Vision is bringing prayer, kindness and action to combat fear, aimlessness, loneliness.
We believe that every small act of courage and love does more than just stop the spread of fear. We actually replace it with hope, and that’s why, from the onset, we have been responding across the world and right here in the U.S.
Please describe the international work first and then we’ll go to work in the United States.
Internationally, we started responding from the outset in China. We declared — the very first time in our history — the first global emergency response. We’re responding in every region that we operate at the same time. We are scaling our response to 17 priority countries.
We are particularly concerned about vulnerable children, such as refugees, displaced children and those living in communities where infrastructure and access to health systems are weak.
We’re aiming to reach 22.5 million people in the next six months, and, while that’s a huge challenge, what I can tell you emphatically is our long history has prepared us for such a time as this. We’re drawing on the lessons that we’ve learned in responses to things like HIV pandemics, Zika, Ebola outbreaks.
And one of the core learnings is that vulnerable communities need to be mobilized and the faith leaders, they make all the difference. They can be a powerful force in stopping the spread of COVID-19, just like they were in previous pandemics.
How has the previous work on the Ebola crisis informed what World Vision is doing now?
In Sierra Leone in 2014, World Vision worked with faith leaders to help with things like how to bury people the appropriate way — safe burial practices and other ways to protect the family. They helped to mobilize entire communities.
Despite being in the epicenter of the outbreak, not one, not one of 59,000 World Vision-supported children and their families died during that outbreak. And today those same faith leaders that we trained back in 2014, they’re already mobilizing on their own, and we continue to train more to be prepared for the crisis.
What are you most concerned about as the coronavirus moves to countries that may have limited medical resources and large populations of poor people?
I tell you what’s on my mind: the tightly built, overcrowded and sanitarily weak places like refugee settlements, slums, shantytowns, barrios.
And here’s the thing: While you and I can choose not to travel or go to music recitals or sporting events, those ultra-vulnerable folks are being asked to go home to those overcrowded sanitarily weak places. I think they’re much more at risk than we are.
Is there anything specific World Vision is doing for those populations with poor sanitary conditions at this point?
We are definitely responding in the same way that we’re responding across the world. We are in Bangladesh in the Rohingya camps, and in South Sudan. We are in Syria, helping them practice the best sanitary practices that they can.
World Vision is known for its global work, but what is keeping your staff most busy as you address needs in the U.S. related to the coronavirus pandemic?
The very first thing we did was we sprung all of our warehouses into action, and the very first day we provided emergency protective supplies, things like soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, all the basics, to low-income families and schools.
We also came alongside health care facilities, and we were just so blessed to be able to provide them with thousands of masks, gloves and other protective equipment.
But now we’re stepping up our efforts even more, and we are aiming to reach 650,000 vulnerable people with what we call family emergency kits. These kits provide a week’s worth of food for a family of five, hygiene and protective items, educational supplies, etc., etc.
Where are the family emergency kits being distributed in the U.S., and what difference are they making in particular communities?
The beautiful thing is we are partnering with the church.
And so we have 13 strategic locations around the country, places like Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Dallas and others. World Vision procures the food and the essential items for the family emergency kits. We put them together. Then we engage the local church partner, and they serve in a safe and secure distribution location.
Your organization says it reaches one person with clean water every 10 seconds. Is that still happening in light of the coronavirus?
We are trying to maintain our water and sanitation efforts because they’re critical infrastructure, particularly for a moment such as this. In Rwanda, the government has asked us to help them with water and sanitation stations.
This is a core part of our preventative response but also of our emergency response. So we’re going to continue to look for ways to provide clean water, to provide training in hygiene and sanitation around the world because it’s critical to stopping the spread of the virus.
What crises are being neglected in general and having to get less attention from your organization because of the coronavirus?
I don’t know that I know exactly what is being neglected. I can tell you that right now our No. 1 priority is to stop the spread of the virus, because of the deadly consequences. And so we’re mobilizing all of our staff to respond with the things that we’ve learned in the past, to mobilize communities, to leverage the influence of faith leaders to train people to stop the spread of misinformation.
And so that’s going to have to take priority No. 1 so we can keep people safe and alive and doing well until the virus dissipates. And then we can go back to the other things that we need like education and food distribution systems and all the economic empowerment programs that we do on the ground.
But, right now, it’s all hands on deck on stopping the virus.